The Theater Development Fund In New York Takes Playing Dress-Up To Another Level

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on September 30, 2017 9:24 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now a look at one of the largest sources for rented theater costumes in the country. The Theater Development Fund is best known for running discount ticket booths in New York City. Reporter Naomi Lewin checked it out when she was asked to portray Johann Sebastian Bach in a video.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: If you were a little kid who liked to play dress-up, this place would knock your Wicked Witch of the West socks off.

STEPHEN CABRAL: We have a little bit of everything here. We have some odd pieces. Like, I see a strawberry. I see a bunch of skeletons.

LEWIN: Is that an elephant head?

CABRAL: That is - yeah, that is an elephant head.

LEWIN: Stephen Cabral is the director of the costume collection at the Theater Development Fund, TDF for short. The not-for-profit is dedicated to making theater more accessible through ticket education and disability programs. TDF got into the costume business in the mid-1960s when the Metropolitan Opera was about to move to Lincoln Center.

CABRAL: They had 22 full operas that they knew that they would not be taking with them but they didn't want to just toss away. So TDF took on all these old productions from the Met and began to at a very, very, very inexpensive rate rent out these costumes.

LEWIN: To anyone who's doing a performance anywhere in the United States.

CABRAL: We're not renting for Halloween, and we're not renting for parties with food or liquids where something could happen to the costume. But if you're doing something that seems of an artistic nature in some way, we're going to be able to rent to you.

LEWIN: Money from those rentals goes to pay the nonprofit's staff and for overhead. The collection is housed in a vast subterranean space in Queens three flights down from the largest soundstage east of Hollywood. All of the costumes are donated. They include Bob Mackie gowns designed for Carol Burnett, Shakespearean garb from the Public Theater and dresses from Broadway shows.

CABRAL: These are both from the musical "Gypsy." This is from a production on Broadway with Bernadette Peters. It's very flirty. You know, it's very light. It's very short. She's not very tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME PEOPLE")

BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still.

CABRAL: Then you have this costume which was worn by Patti LuPone in "Gypsy." This is a three-piece brown wool suit probably 1920s, '30s. It has this outer coat that is very heavy, predominantly black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL NEVER GET AWAY FROM ME")

PATTI LUPONE: (Singing) You'll never get away from me. You can climb the tallest tree.

LEWIN: Cabral points out a gown from a Met production of "Lucia Di Lammermoor."

CABRAL: It is very Elizabethan but done Metropolitan Opera. So the sleeves are a little longer and the fabric is a little bit more ornate.

LEWIN: This particular gown was once shipped to an opera company in the Midwest. Afterwards, Cabral got a phone call saying...

CABRAL: You had one of my singers in tears last night. The person being fitted for this costume was a young opera singer. And when she saw the costume and saw that it had a Metropolitan Opera label and it said Beverly Sills, the young woman broke down because she couldn't believe that she was so fortunate to not only wear a Metropolitan Opera, but to wear something by Beverly Sills.

LEWIN: This costume is part of what TDF calls its special stock. After these costumes have seen their share of use, they're moved into regular stock. And once they start looking shabby, they might go into the distressed section. Or they could go straight to the semiannual bag sale, where Cabral says there's a set price for everything you can stuff into one bag.

CABRAL: And the rule is we just don't ever want to see the costume again.

LEWIN: So keep your eyes on the TDF website if you, too, are looking to dress up as a famous composer. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIGETO'S "DETROIT PART II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.